New ASU courses offer tools for engaging others in science


Science communication

Two ASU courses have the goal of bridging the communication gap between scientists and the public. Credit: Tom Dunne, American Scientist

Roaring '20s-era physicist Ernest Rutherford is purported to have said, “It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid,” which is said to be the antecedent to Albert Einstein’s later proclamation: “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Clearly, the art of effectively sharing scientific knowledge has been a concern for generations. Even TV star Alan Alda thought it so important that he created his eponymous Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, saying, “We need to be more conversant with it because science is in our lives. It’s in everything. It’s in the food we eat. It’s in the air we breathe. It’s everywhere.”

But, as a researcher grows in their field, so does their body of knowledge — knowledge that becomes increasingly inaccessible to others outside their own expertise. This is important not just for communicating science with the public, but also for communication among scientists who are engaged in interdisciplinary teams tackling complex problems.

Communicating for collaboration

For Athena Aktipis, a boundary-spanning psychologist-biologist, assistant professor in psychology and faculty at the Biodesign Institute, the challenge of learning to talk about her work has become an avid pursuit — one so important that she created a new graduate level class, “Communication for Scientists” (PSY 591). 

“It is really important that scientists can talk about their work with researchers in other disciplines and general audiences,” Aktipis said. “This allows us to leverage our collective knowledge to make progress on wickedly complex problems and engage the public in the excitement of making discoveries and solving problems.

“I’ve really become addicted to creating content that is both interesting to an academic audience and accessible to a general one,” she said.

Aktipis is the creator-producer and host of the increasingly popular podcast "Zombified," a program that New York Times best-selling author Barbara Natterson-Horowitz called “provocative, erudite and sometimes hysterically funny.” Aktipis is also the author of the forthcoming book from Princeton University Press, "The Cheating Cell: How evolution helps us understand and treat cancer," a highly interdisciplinary book that is both peer reviewed and aimed at the general reader. Steven Pinker described "The Cheating Cell" as “an engaging and insightful explanation of why we are cursed with this malady."

According to Ten Simple Rules for a Successful Cross-disciplinary Collaboration, “cross-disciplinary collaborations have become an increasingly important part of science. They are seen as key if we are to find solutions to pressing, global-scale societal challenges, including green technologies, sustainable food production and drug development.”

Aktipis’ curriculum is intended for graduate students in the sciences who are looking to expand their repertoire of communication skills. The course is also open to others at the graduate and postdoc levels.

“Not only does sharing our knowledge help keep the public informed about what is happening in science, it also is a great opportunity for scientists to learn more about the way their work interfaces with real problems and challenges that people face,” she said.

Aktipis is so enthusiastic about the subject that she conjured up the courage to perform when she was invited to be a part of a science comedy night at the recent meeting of the National Association of Science Writers.

“I ended up having a lot of fun, and it made me think about other opportunities to use humor to engage people. When people are laughing, they are a lot more open to listening to what you have to say. We tend not to think about comedy as part of our tool kit as scientists, but maybe we should be rethinking that.”

Aktipis’ course will cover effective writing and presentations, poster communications and social media strategies. With her background in psychology, Aktipis will share information on the psychology of communications and how the human mind interacts with technology. Students will create their own academic website and learn how to communicate with “the NPR public.” “We will even talk about the opportunities and pitfalls of using humor in communicating about your work,” said Aktipis.

Communicating science to the public

Looking at the issue of science communications from another perspective, Charles Kazilek, chief technology innovation officer and research professional in the School of Life Sciences, and Karla Moeller, executive outreach coordinator in the Office of the University Provost, launched “Communicating Science to the Public” (BIO591) last year. Moeller explains that although their course is beneficial for scientists, its focus is on helping both scientists and nonscientists — teachers, journalists, writers and others — communicate with the public.

Kazilek and Moeller are the brains behind the highly popular Ask A Biologist website.

“Communicating Science to the Public” will cover science writing, podcast and video production, illustrations, infographics and more.

“When we communicate about research, we affect public perception of science in general, and we need to build trusting relationships with the public,” Kazilek said. “We want to help everyone understand why science is exciting and worth supporting, and we want them to understand the process of science and discovery.” 

“It's also important for nonscientists like journalists to be able to properly communicate science,” he said. “Science can be a tough subject for some to understand, and accurate and engaging reporting is so important to the process of learning about science.”

Moeller and Kazilek’s course will help students learn how to focus on engaging an audience, while maintaining science accuracy — often a challenge for nonscientists who write about science.

“By focusing on making scientists better storytellers — and helping journalists to improve their communications — we are building a more trusting relationship between scientists and the public,” said Moeller. “With the enormous challenges we are facing, especially with climate change and public health issues, it's important to maintain this relationship and to foster the public's interest and trust in science.”

Graduate students and upper division undergraduates in the sciences, communication, or science education are encouraged to register for the course.

Written by Dianne Price 

Cartoon Credit: Tom Dunne, American Scientist

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